The strange and violent world of St. Louis' bail bondsmen

Jerry Cox

On the evening of December 31, 2004, Jerry Cox was relaxing with his wife on his backyard patio in St. Charles, enjoying the outdoor fireplace he received as a Christmas gift a few days earlier from his two sons. He was interrupted by the sight of a familiar face, a fellow bail bondsman named Virgil Lee Jackson.

Update, November 26, 2008: Maryland Heights Police charge Jerry Cox.

"I need to talk to you — privately," Cox recalls Jackson saying calmly.

The New Year's Eve encounter surprised Cox. He and Jackson had shared a long and acrimonious history. In the 1960s and '70s, Cox was a police officer in Bridgeton, and Jackson was one of the usual suspects. Jackson was convicted of felony robbery three times and, according to court documents, arrested and released on nine other occasions on suspicion of "extremely serious and many violent crimes." By the time he was 35, Jackson had spent more than fifteen years behind bars.

In the late 1990s, they were competitors in the cutthroat St. Louis bail bond industry, squabbling over territory in surrounding counties and fighting for the chance to get accused criminals out of jail and collect a 10 percent commission on their bonds.

Ultimately, in late 2000, the pair set aside their differences to become officers in the recently formed Missouri Professional Bail Bond Association (MPBBA), where they worked with a lobbyist and other bondsmen around the state to secure legislation beneficial to their business.

Unsure of what the occasion was for Jackson's unexpected visit, Cox asked his wife to excuse herself and offered his guest a seat. Cox, in a recent interview, described what happened next.

"I leaned over to stoke the fire, and I feel this pressing against the side of my head, and I hear this 'click,'" Cox says, recalling the sound of the hammer cocking on Jackson's chrome-plated, semiautomatic pistol. "He says, 'I'm here to kill you.' I said, 'You're a fucking punk. Why would you come to my home and do this? Not even the fucking Mafia does this.'"

Though Cox talked Jackson into leaving peacefully, it was not the end of their feud — not by a long shot.

In September 2005 Jackson was arrested by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and charged in the Eastern District of Missouri federal court with masterminding a murder-for-hire plot on Cox and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

In a plea-bargain agreement reached last November, prosecutors dropped the firearms charge, and the 67-year-old Jackson pleaded to the murder-for-hire charge. He's now serving a ten-year sentence in Milan Federal Correctional Institution, 45 miles south of Detroit. Prison officials denied a request for a phone interview, and Jackson did not respond to a letter from Riverfront Times.

Glen Thomas Dotson, the alleged accomplice in Jackson's plot, goes on trial next month in St. Louis. According to court documents and the testimony of an ATF agent, the 43-year-old Dotson was a bounty hunter who worked for Jackson, helping him to beat up people who failed to appear in court while out on bond. Currently free on bond, Dotson is charged with providing Jackson the revolver that, according to court documents, was to be used in the murder-for-hire scheme.

As news of the botched plot spread following Jackson's arrest, details began to emerge about campaign contributions from the MPBBA and Jackson's employer, a bondsman named Jack Allison, to Bob Behnen, then a Missouri state representative.

Campaign finance reports show that the group paid the Kirksville lawmaker $1,250 on January 31, 2005, after he sponsored legislation that allowed felons to become licensed bail bondsmen if they'd been clean for fifteen years. The law became effective January 1, 2005. Jackson (known by his middle name Lee) himself wrote a portion of the 82-page omnibus measure and gave it to Behnen to introduce.

It is now known in the industry as the "Lee Clause."

"To my knowledge, I know of no other state that allows felons to be licensed as bail bondsmen," says Bill Kreins, spokesman for the Professional Bail Agents of the United States. "Convicted felons absolutely should not be in the bail bond business. They just do not fit."

When Virgil Lee Jackson was issued a bail bond agent's license in 1996, the decision caused some consternation.

"I immediately called Jefferson City," remembers Darrell Tullock, a St. Charles-based bondsman. "I said, 'What are you doing? This guy is a convicted felon. How can you make him a bondsman? He was caught burglarizing a post office.' They said, 'Oh yeah, I think he mentioned he stole some stamps.'"

Once licensed, Jackson needed to find an employer, known in industry parlance as a "general," as in general bail bond agent. A general agent is the boss. Bail bondsmen write bonds, backed by their general's assets, and split the profits.

Eventually, Jack Allison became Jackson's general. According to the Department of Insurance, he's currently the third largest general agent in the state, supervising 38 of Missouri's 858 bail bond agents.

Over a breakfast of grits and fried eggs at the St. Charles Cracker Barrel, Allison, a bulky, bald-headed man in his early 60s, recalls Jackson as a model employee. "The whole time that Lee worked for me he was professional," says Allison. "He did everything the way you're supposed to do it."

In late 2000, Allison and Jackson joined Cox, Tullock and a handful of other local bondsmen to form the Missouri Professional Bail Bond Association. Group members say they were fed up with what they perceived to be unfair enforcement of bond forfeitures (money paid by bondsmen when one of their clients misses a court date) by St. Louis judges. Allison soon became president of the association and Virgil Lee Jackson its vice president.

It was Allison who suggested the group retain a lobbyist named Steve Carroll to help draft and pass legislation to, as Allison explains, "make the industry more professional."

It was at Carroll's St. Louis office on a December afternoon in 2003 that Jackson first presented the idea of letting felons become bondsmen if they'd been clean for fifteen years.

"Lee got up on his high horse," Cox remembers, "and he started saying, 'Well, we shouldn't keep punishing people.' The majority of people at that meeting agreed with him. I got outvoted. I said, 'Well, it's a democratic society, put it in there.'"

"We do live in a society based upon Judeo-Christian ethics that says everyone deserves a second chance," says Carroll. "And the Department of Insurance makes the decisions on a case-by-case basis anyway."

Says Allison: "We didn't feel like you should have to pay for your crime longer than fifteen years. As long as it's not a heinous crime, there's no reason you shouldn't be allowed to get a license. Everybody gets a second chance somewhere, or at least they should."

Or, as Representative Bob Behnen told the Columbia Missourian: "Laws are made all the time to benefit one person. That's not uncommon at all."

Cox says at the time (in 2003) he was one of only a few members of the 137-person bail bond association who argued against the so-called Lee Clause. "I looked straight over at him [Jackson] and I said, 'I'm going to be honest with you guys, I'm opposed to it,'" Cox recalls. "I don't think anybody should write bonds if they've got a felony conviction. I don't give a shit if it's been one year or twenty years."

Later he adds, "Looking back over it — that might have had a little to do with the animosity Lee was having with me."

We're pretty much the social workers of the night," says Paul Berry, a St. Charles-based bondsman. "I've had people call me in the middle of night, call at two in morning, because they have to get out of jail because their mom is in the hospital and she has four months to live."

Like Berry, those who laud the work done by bail bondsmen point out that they are often the only ones who can get the accused out of jail on short notice, at odd hours and often in dire situations.

Some states, however, have done away with professional bondsmen completely. Illinois is one of those four states. "I love it. I love it a lot," Mel Weith, a lieutenant colonel with the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department, says of his state's bondsman-free system, which has been in place since he joined the Illinois force 32 years ago. "I wouldn't want the headaches of having outsiders coming in."

Depending on whom you ask, bondsmen are a blessing or a bane.

"My old boss, he told me when I was starting off that any successful bail bondsman is generally one step out of an indictment, so be careful when you work with them," says Joe Hogan, a St. Louis defense attorney.

"I've been doing this for fifteen years and I have not encountered any problems with any bonding agency," reports Greg Wittner, another St. Louis defense lawyer. "But I choose my associations very carefully."

St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Edward Sweeney, who presided over the city's forfeiture court last year, says he frequently gives bondsmen leniency when it comes to meeting forfeiture deadlines, chiefly because they are more efficient at finding fugitives than the justice system.

"It's not costing the taxpayers any money if the bondsman has to go to New York and bring the guy back," Sweeney explains. "If the bond is forfeited, the bondsman pays that money [to the court], but the suspect is still out there on a warrant. Then you're relying on a combination of luck and the likelihood that someone who broke the law once will break it again."

Despite their helpful role in the U.S. justice system, unflattering portrayals of their trade in films like Midnight Run and Jackie Brown have left bondsmen battling a mainstream reputation that might be characterized as sleazy at best, or downright criminal at worst.

"They're in a business where every one of their clients is accused of a crime, just like defense attorneys," Sweeney says. "And just like defense attorneys, there's a tendency to associate the clientele with the person who is serving that clientele."

"Some of these guys, the way they do business is suspect to me," says Keith Morgan, who, as St. Louis County's bonding supervisor, approves which bondsmen are allowed to operate in the county courts and jails. "There are always some good ones and always some guys who are going to bend and twist the system to work in their favor."

On Jerry Cox's desk, thick black business cards embossed with gold letters spell out the slogan of his St. Charles-based Cox Bail Bonds: "In the box? Call Cox." The 64-year-old Cox, who served two terms in the state House of Representatives as a Democrat, from 1978 to 1982, resembles and speaks in the same gruff tone as an aging George C. Scott.

Sucking down a cigarette, he recalls how, despite his opposition, the MPBBA voted to go along with Virgil Lee Jackson's request to permit felons to get work as bail bondsmen. The association, however, did draw the line on anyone convicted of crimes involving "moral turpitude," child molestation or using a firearm.

To achieve its legislative initiatives, Carroll approached Bob Behnen, the Kirksville House Republican. In the Senate, they went to John Cauthorn, a Republican from Mexico, Missouri. Cauthorn was at the time, and still is, Jack Allison's next-door neighbor.

"When you're elected, you're elected to represent people in your district no matter what they are," says Cauthorn, explaining his support of the legislation, when reached by phone. "I think [Allison] was actually making a good-faith effort to help clean up this industry."

When asked recently about the law, giving the campaign contribution to Behnen and his relationship to Cauthorn, Allison emphatically denies that any ethical breaches were committed.

"They all say that I'm the one that bought off Jeff City and got it passed," he says. "That's bull. You don't buy off Jeff City. I didn't bribe anybody. I didn't do nothing like that. We just lobbied our representatives with what we thought was a good piece of legislation."

The Lee Clause became effective January 1, 2005, the day after Jackson allegedly put a gun to Cox's head.

Why Virgil Lee Jackson arrived, gun in hand, at Jerry Cox's house and later plotted his murder is a matter still debated among the area's bail bondsmen. Cox claims that Jackson's motives might lie in the fact that he was out-hustling him for bail-bond business in St. Charles and Lincoln counties.

"We talked [on New Year's Eve] and he said, 'You're hurting my business, and you're hurting it bad,'" Cox recalls. "I says, 'Well, Lee, isn't that what competition is?' And he says, 'You don't need to be telling them I'm a crook and a thief.' I says, 'Well, who was the one that was convicted of it, Lee — me or you?'"

In an affidavit filed on October 25, 2005 — the day Jackson was arrested — Theodore "Thad" Heitzler, an ATF agent who led the investigation, offers a different motive. He writes that Jackson believed Cox tipped off the Department of Insurance to an elaborate fraud scam. For the transgression, according to Heitzler's affidavit, Jackson was recorded as saying, "Jerry Cox needs a bullet in his head."

After the law containing the Lee Clause passed, Jackson applied to become licensed as a "general agent," but his application was rejected because of his criminal past. The Department of Insurance maintains that the Lee Clause applies only to bail bond agents, not generals. A defiant Jackson proceeded to open his own business in Cottleville, just outside of St. Charles. He called it Lee Jackson Bail Bonds. To cover the bonds he was writing, Jackson registered two corporations with the Missouri Secretary of State — American Guarantee Surety and Missouri National Surety — recognized in 2002 and 2004, respectively.

Though Jack Allison was still technically Jackson's boss, processing his paperwork and collecting a percentage of his profits, Jackson was for all intents and purposes his own general agent. The catch was that the companies were not what they made themselves out to be.

Angela Park, a general bail bond agent based in Rolla, Missouri, and the author of a bail bond industry blog called Missouri Bondsman, meticulously chronicled Jackson's downfall on her Web site. She explains that by choosing the name "surety," Jackson was leading officers of the court to believe that his corporations were multi-million-dollar insurance companies. However, records show that when the companies were registered with the secretary of state their combined worth was $60,000.

"The thing about Jackson's corporation is that it was never licensed as an insurance company or a bail bond corporation," notes Park. "They were just unlicensed entities out there writing bonds. They didn't have to prove they had assets, and the courts were assuming they had insurance licenses when they just didn't."

Says Allison: "Lee had his assets put up with that corporation. His house, his land, whatever he owned, that's what was put up. That's what was available to the courts."

Allison, who was listed as the president of American Guarantee several times in the company's annual filings, adds, "The only thing different about it was that my name was on the general's license [with the Department of Insurance] And I think at one time my name was on them as the vice president or president — or whatever."

In late 2004 an employee at the Department of Insurance received an anonymous phone call tipping them off to Jackson's racket.

"The phone call was made to the state administrator's office who in turned called me and ask me to review [Jackson's] documents," recalls Morgan, the bond supervisor for St. Louis County who uncovered the fraud. "Sure enough, in the process of review we found out the companies were not legitimate and he didn't have the proper paperwork filed with state administrator's office to be qualified to post bonds."

Subsequently, Jackson temporarily lost his ability to work in St. Charles and St. Louis counties. Jackson believed that it was Cox who betrayed him.

Swears Cox: "I had nothing at all whatsoever to do with the Department of Insurance and Lee Jackson."

Whatever the case, Jackson was out for revenge, as the threatening recorded phone call in October 2005 indicated. Cox, meanwhile, claims he heard rumblings from fellow bondsmen about Jackson plotting his murder.

"[They] told me, 'He's trying to buy some explosives to blow up your fucking car. He's even offered to pay me to do it.'" Cox says. "It was getting to the point where I was putting tape on my car to make sure my hood and my doors hadn't been opened."

Eventually, Cox called the ATF to report what he'd heard about Jackson's plans. Heitzler, the agent assigned to the case, recounts in his affidavit how on September 28, 2005, he asked a bondsman acting as a confidential informant to make a recorded phone call to Jackson.

In the call, Jackson says, referring to Cox: "I should have shot him when I had the chance."

According to Heitzler's affidavit, less than a month later — on October 20, 2005 — the ATF hatched a plan to have Jackson incriminate himself. Heitzler enlisted the help of a confidential informant, later identified in court documents as a bail bondsman named Aaron Smith.

Smith got a hold of Jackson and the two made plans to meet for lunch at a restaurant called JJ's in St. Charles. After eating they drove to Cox's office and discussed how Smith would "ambush and shoot Cox after Cox watched Monday Night Football and left his business." All the while, Smith was wearing a wire.

On October 24, Jackson called Smith and told him to meet at a gas station just off state Highway 79 near St. Charles. Once there, he told him "the item" was placed in the woods just across the street.

When Jackson left, Smith found a .38 caliber nickel-plated revolver with ten rounds of ammunition wrapped in a white towel and stuffed in a brown paper bag. He turned them over to the ATF. Jackson was arrested the following day.

Virgil Lee Jackson was allowed to keep his bail bond agent's license until February 5, 2008 — six months after his plea bargain and nearly three years after his arrest. Why? According to Emily Kampeter, a Missouri Department of Insurance spokeswoman, the department's policy is that one is "innocent until proven guilty."

Because of that policy, had Jackson been freed on bond after his arrest he could still be in the business of bailing other people out of jail. But on October 27, 2005, federal prosecutors declared him "a serious risk to obstruct justice or threaten, injure or intimidate witnesses."

Two weeks later, according to a motion filed by prosecutors, Jackson, who was now being held in the St. Francois County Jail, offered another inmate $50,000 "to get rid of [the ATF's confidential informant] Aaron Smith."

Had Jackson's case not made headlines, it's possible the Department of Insurance wouldn't have known about the charges he was facing until he reapplied for a bail-bond license.

According to Kampeter, bondsmen are not required to notify the insurance department when they are arrested. "Our investigators monitor news reports and court records to track convicted bail bond agents on a regular basis," Kampeter writes in an e-mail. "The agent's fingerprints are checked every two years to monitor his or her criminal record."

In most cases, Kampeter explains, the process of a revoking a bail license begins with someone filing a complaint against a specific agent. Testimony by Heitzler about Glen Thomas Dotson, the bounty hunter employed by Jackson, shows that the problem is that not every act of impropriety gets registered as a complaint.

On June 1, 2006, Dotson, from Silex, Missouri, was arrested by the ATF at the St. Charles county jail. Dotson goes to trial next month. He is charged with providing Jackson with the pistol that would have been used to murder Cox. At a magistrate's hearing the day after his arrest, Heitzler testified about two incidents involving Dotson and Cox that the Department of Insurance had never heard about.

Heitzler described in his testimony how in July 2000, a woman named Diana Jordan skipped bond after being freed from jail by Jackson. After tracking her down, Jackson, Dotson and another bounty hunter handcuffed her and drove her to the middle of a field off of state Highway 47.

According to Heitzler's testimony, Jackson duct-taped Jordan's ankles, hands, and mouth and then slapped her across the face. He then told Jordan they were going to leave her in the field all night and drove away. The party returned a half hour later and brought Jordan to the Warren County Sheriff's Department, where officers noted that she had scratches on her face and wounds on her wrists.

Heitzler also testified that in February 2001, Jackson, Dotson and two other bounty hunters tracked down a couple, Michael and Phyllis Jeffrey, who had failed to appear in court while out on a Jackson bond in Warren County. Jackson and the bounty hunters found them and brought the couple back to a bar that Jackson's wife owned in Troy, Missouri, called Misty Nights.

"Michael Jeffrey was then put in a chair, duct-taped to a chair and handcuffed, and basically tortured by Virgil Jackson," Heitlzer said. "He was beat in the head with a phone book and by hand by Virgil Jackson...He was hit twice in the side under his armpit with a stun gun."

Neither Jordan nor the Jeffreys ever registered official complaints against Jackson with the Department of Insurance.

When Bob Behnen ran for a Senate seat in 2006, his opponent, Wes Shoemyer, aired attack ads that criticized him for his involvement in passing the law that included the Lee Clause. Shoemyer won the election even though he too had voted in favor of the bill as a member of the House.

"Push comes to shove, Wes voted for the bill," says Kathy Armstrong, a member of Shoemyer's legislative staff. "But Wes went after him on it, and that's why he's filed bills to do away with it, because it's not right. Really, truly, the last place you want to have a felon working is in the bail bond industry."

In December 2007, Shoemyer introduced a bill that would have repealed the Lee Clause. After it was moved to committee, however, he amended the language of the law to retain the fifteen-year provision.

"The [bail bond] association came and talked to the senator and they had some changes that they wanted to do, and so Wes said, 'OK, if the association wants them,'" Armstrong explains. "He presented a senate committee substitute that kept the fifteen-year provision, but then he kind of sort of changed his mind and wants to go back to the basic bill."

Campaign finance reports from the Missouri Ethics Commission show that leading up to the 2006 election, Shoemyer received $1,400 in contributions from Allison and Allison's wife, Deborah. Allison says he and Shoemyer are "friends."

"Jack Allison is a constituent and they like Wes, and he happens to be a bail bondsman," says Armstrong. "And even in spite of the campaign contributions he received from the Allison family, he still moved forward with a bill that would've not allowed Virgil Jackson to have a license."

"It's going to stay the same," says Allison, who currently holds the title of legislative coordinator with the MPBBA.

That stance has created a rift between bondsmen who support the association and those who oppose felons in the industry.

"They pretty much only represent themselves at this point," says Angela Park, a bail bond industry blogger. "I can see why other people might be hesitant to join. It kind of leaves a bad taste in your mouth that Jackson was in the leadership and that he paid a bunch of lobbyists and state reps off and tried to murder his competitor."

That, however, hasn't stopped the MPBBA from continuing to lobby the state legislature with new proposals. In February, Sen. Maida Coleman, a St. Louis Democrat, introduced Senate Bill 1247 that would take oversight of the bail industry away from the Department of Insurance and place it in the hands of a "professional bail bond board."

The board would become responsible for all licensing, registration, discipline and rule-making for the state's bondsmen and bounty hunters. Though it does contain a provision requiring bondsmen to notify the proposed board within ten days of pleading guilty to a felony, it nonetheless retains the language of the Lee Clause.

According to the Missouri Ethics Commission, Coleman in 2006 received $800 in contributions from Allison, Carroll and the MPBBA. Last month, Representative Will Kraus of Kirksville sponsored nearly identical legislation. Neither Coleman's nor Kraus' offices returned calls seeking comment.

On her Web site, Park decries the proposals as a "bail bond power grab" by the MPBBA and writes that, "The association would like to pass legislation that will feed revenues to the association and require its continued existence."

Allison counters by saying that he and the other members of their organization are simply attempting to do what they feel is right. According to Allison, that means giving felons a chance to become bondsmen.

"As long as it wasn't a murder or something like that you shouldn't have to keep paying for your crime for longer than fifteen years," Allison says.

Ironically, one of biggest proponents of preserving the Lee Clause is none other than Jerry Cox. In July 2004 Cox's son Jim pleaded guilty and served a year in jail following a conviction of felony conspiracy. As a Florissant police officer, he twice planted drugs and other evidence on a woman who was going through a divorce with one of his associates. The hope was that the ensuing conviction would sway the judge to award custody of the couple's kids to Jim's acquaintance. He was paid $2,600 for the deed.

Jim Cox is currently part-owner and director of operations at Cox Bail Bonds. Jerry Cox, who recently survived a bout with cancer, says he eventually wants his son to become a licensed bondsman and take over the business — something, of course, that would be impossible if the Lee Clause were repealed.

"Eventually the business is his," the elder Cox says. "In hindsight, now that [the Lee Clause] is there, I say leave it alone. Because if somebody has been clean and has been an upright person for fifteen years — truly has — why keep kicking 'em?"

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